Anna Sherman’s travel book about Tokyo reads like no other, part history, part fiction, all grounded in fact. A staggering reassembling of an ancient city turned neon metropolis.
In her debut travel narrative, author Anna Sherman takes the reader along on a mission to find the titular bells, the ones which noted the hours in Edo, long before it became known as Tokyo, and long before the country was opened up to western nations and people.
Sherman, an American scholar, takes us through a journey from Zojoji’s triple gate, throughout its history, how its social identity changed with the new emperors, through war, westernisation, and natural disasters.
The book works as an ambitious attempt to get a better understanding of Tokyo and its people, a culture informed by its history and its intent to move into and beyond the shogunate, the isolationist empire; the struggles of a post-war defeat to establish themselves as a mighty nation unwilling to take up arms again.
The book’s narrative is somewhat mysterious and hard to nail down – there are references to time being told in units of nine, rather than being experienced in a linear way, it’s circular. Years are determined through whichever emperor is in on the throne, and structured with animals like the Chinese zodiac. It’s fascinating to read that in old Edo, the way to measure hours changed with the seasons, so that a winter hour was much shorter than a summer hour. Then, one day, it all changed and everyone just had to get used to telling time the ‘western’ way. Which makes sense, but at the same time, you’d have to feel for the populace (you ask people in Australia to bring their own bags to the grocery store a year in advance and they lose their tiny minds).
The Bells of Old Tokyo is a fascinating read, in that it doesn’t read like any other kind of travel narrative. This has the feel of a writer having truly experienced a very specific component of a foreign land, and gotten to the grassroots of it as a better means by which to understand the broader picture. None of your Eat Pray Love ‘me time’ nonsense here.
Hers is a take taken from some perspectives from the purview of modern Japan’s coffee culture, having blossomed in the 1960s, but in a different way to the came java joneses that inform the cultural identity of the likes of Melbourne or Rome. It also takes its narrative starting points from the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant meltdown. The war, of course, makes a huge impact – as it did on Japanese society. One of the more affecting passages comes from Sherman’s encounter with a Mrs Nihei, an 80-year-old guide at Tokyo’s Centre of Raids and War Damage. This little-known memorial, established in acts as a memorial to those who died during the Tokyo firebombings in 1945, sees its guide, Mrs Nihei, as being someone who was there, as a toddler, who remembers it all and recalls enough to hammer home the point of the horrors of war.
The book is one which asks us to consider how time is experienced, and the possibilities inherent in a culture which until relatively recently, experienced time in a different and unique manner. From that, we learn more about Tokyo, Japan, and its people in a rich and vivid narrative that is as enthralling as it is unexpected.
This is an engrossing piece of work. Curiously, it’s 227 pages of content, followed by 110 pages of footnotes and references. One might presume the research and authenticity was of paramount consideration.
But its startling originality stems from its tone, structure and approach to the travel narrative genre. This is an exceptional and exceptionally original piece of writing.